The UK government is considering a ban on unpaid internships. But could their plans impact on volunteering?
Recently Alec Shelbrooke, Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell, introduced a Private Members Bill into Parliament titled the National Minimum Wage (Workplace Internships) Bill. Mr Shelbrooke rightly sought to bring an end to exploitative internships where young people work for private sector companies for extended periods on no pay in order to gain experience and, hopefully, employment.
As with many Private Members Bills, Mr Shelbrooke’s proposed legislation has stalled in parliament, on this occasion being filibustered out at it’s second reading. Why? It seems the government is undertaking an independent review of modern working practices and may well seek to bring it’s own legislation to outlaw exploitative internships.
Until we see any such proposals from government, analysis of what Mr Shelbrooke was proposing is both interesting and could indicate any potential affect on volunteering.
Mr Shelbrooke’s bill was short and to the point. It would have affected the whole of the UK and the core content sat in three sections.
For the purpose of this Act, a workplace internship is an employment practice in which a person (“the intern”)—
(a) undertakes regular work or provides regular services in the United
(i) another person; (ii) a company; (iii) a limited liability partnership; or
(iv) a public authority; and
(b) the purpose of the employment practice is—
(i) that the intern meets learning objectives or gains experience of
working for the employer listed in section 1(a); and (ii) to provide practical experience in an occupation or profession.
An intern who enters into a workplace internship shall be remunerated by his employer in respect of his work at a rate which is not less than the national minimum wage calculated in accordance with the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 for the appropriate age of the individual.
Subject to subsection 1 an employer is not liable for Employers’ National Insurance contributions for an intern undertaking a workplace internship of less than 12 months.
For the purposes of this Act, section 2 shall not apply if the person is—
(a) a student at a higher or further education institution based in the UK
who is required to undertake an internship or equivalent work
placement as part of his or her course;
(b) of compulsory school age;
(c) undertaking an approved English apprenticeship as set out in the
Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009;
So, to summarise, an intern would be clearly defined and would have to be paid at least the national minimum wage. So far so good. However, problems would have come from interpreting and applying the bill.
First, the bill states that it only applies to companies. Whilst the intent is clearly private sector businesses, many registered charities are also registered as limited companies. Campaign groups like Intern Aware have been vocal that unpaid internships in charities are as bad as those in private companies. The Bill as worded would therefore allow registered charities to be targeted by the appropriate authorities.
Once charities become a focus of this legislation the question of volunteering is bound to come up. When I have written previously on unpaid internships I have received comments from social media trolls claiming all unpaid work should be outlawed, including volunteering. So where would Mr Shelbrooke’s Bill have left us?
For some insights let’s turn to the House of Commons debate on the Bill. When asked about the implications on volunteering Mr Shelbrooke remarked:
That looks promising until you also read the following comments from Mr Shelbrooke during the debate:
So volunteers won’t fall under the legislation if they just turn up but if a group or organisation seeks to deliberately advertise for volunteers then “that makes a mockery of things”. Also, if an organisation has a large turnover and engages people on an unpaid basis then that is exploiting a “volunteer” loophole.
That is considerably less encouraging, opening up new loopholes that could in theory allow the authorities to decide that any volunteers who are actively recruited to charities and / or who have money to pay people would be entitled to National Minimum Wage! And we haven’t even looked at volunteering in the public sector, or those roles that are really volunteering but the volunteer calls them internships to make them sound more attractive to a potential employer.
Of course, Mr Shelbrooke’s well intentioned Bill seems to be going nowhere now, but it gives an insight into how the government might seek to legislate on the exploitation of unpaid internships. What I hope I have done in this article is show that if and when legislation is introduced into Parliament on the matter it needs much further thought and refinement if it is to achieve its aim without damaging the UK’s long and proud history of volunteering.
What do you think? Add your thoughts to the debate in the comments section below.
- An employer may meet Employers’ National Insurance contributions for an intern undertaking a workplace internship of less than 12 months. ↩